Night Photography: how to photograph amazing light trails

Light Trails

Night Photography Tips: Paul Sutton explains how to brighten your autumn evenings by shooting light trails using your car as a mobile studio

Having seen a night photography technique for shooting in-car shots, I decided to try it out for myself to see if I could capture some amazing light trails.

The first hurdle I had to get over was the placement of the tripod so I could get a nice solid foundation. Moving the passenger seat as far back as it could go enabled me to get each foot of the tripod to rest firmly in a ‘nook’ on the floor and not against the seat – which I imagined would flex and cause camera shake.

Shooting light trails: best kit

I opted to use my Canon DSLR with a Sigma 10-20mm lens set at 10mm to maximise the viewing angle and get as much of the cab interior included. Having tried a variety of positions, from lower down to higher up, I soon realised I wanted to increase the perceived ‘depth’ of the shot by catching some light trails reflected in the rear view mirror, so a fairly high angle was needed. I fired off a few test shots just to make sure I had got the angle just right.

The cable release, an essential of any night photography, would sit in the centre console within easy reach of my left hand. The shutter speed was going to be key to getting the right effect and I knew that this was likely to be around 15sec or more. After a few test shots I finally settled on 30sec at an aperture of f/16 to maximise the depth-of-field. The lens was set to manual focus and focused on the dashboard.

Shooting light trails: best locations

I thought driving through the town centre would yield the best light trails, but I was totally wrong. My pictures had far too much light coming from the shop windows, which overpowered the light trails in my final shots.

In fact, the best light trails I managed were achieved by just travelling along everyday urban A-roads with small amounts of traffic travelling in both directions at about 30mph. A lot of the time these roads are quite straight so I ‘jiggled’ the wheel a little to get some movement in my hands and the wheel.

I hoped the police weren’t watching in case they thought my slight weaving was influenced by alcohol… which obviously it wasn’t. The light trails I got from straighter roads suited my needs perfectly, as the light sources converged into straight lines. This enhanced the appearance of the relatively low speed and gave an impression in my light trails of entering ‘lightspeed’ like something out of Star Wars.

The one thing I can’t stress enough from my attempts is to make sure that all the windows and mirrors are as clean as possible both inside and out – the slightest smear will reflect the light and spoil your light trails. I had cleaned mine meticulously, or so I thought, but there were one or two areas that needed cloning out on the final shots.

Shooting light trails: how to do it hands-free

Obviously, you should concentrate on your driving, so keeping both hands on the steering wheel is important. An infrared wireless remote release is worth having for such occasions, so have a look at the Seculine Twin 1-R3 UT
wireless remote release.

Most film and digital SLRs are catered for. See intro2020.co.uk for more information.

Shooting light trails: spotting the perfect conditions

The best light trails come when there’s plenty of street lighting around, so shoot in lit urban areas where you can drive at a steady, consistent speed. Being in traffic helps, too, where you’ll get headlights and brake lights showing on your shots.

Town centres where there’s a lot of shop lights can be too much, but try it and see what you think. Regularly stop – safely and off the road, of course – to inspect your efforts so you can adjust the camera’s viewpoint and settings if needed.

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  1. Hi Paul great artical but where are the results?

    Comment made by: PentaxKid
    13.10.09 16:09:28

  2. I can believe this article is for real? Driving along a highway taking photos, how crazy, and using a infared control is not hands free?

    Comment made by: paulcompton
    10.09.11 09:23:18

  3. some colour left in the sky would be more appealing shot at dusk, black just doesn't do it for me.

    Comment made by: Graham00
    10.09.11 13:40:57

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